Poptronica's most polarizing figure continues the process of combining his two musical faces - band-style lead singer and ambient/electronic music creator - that was finally, semi-successfully begun in earnest on 2002's 18. Hotel is a collection of pop tunes and bouncy gay-club/techno tracks that takes less pains to connect its disparate vibes than it does to present each tune as a single polished gem. Conspicuous influences abound. Some are predictable, like The Pet Shop Boys ("Lift Me Up") and any German producer who ever put a soulful female vocal over an endless disco-meets-techno loop ("Very"); others, like Bowie ("Spiders") and Sisters of Mercy ("Raining Again," "Beautiful"), take the listener pleasantly by surprise. In fact, the first third of the disc is downright impeccable. Too bad, then, that it's mostly downhill from there. In typical Moby fashion, the lyrics are often childishly simple and cliché-ridden, which can be overlooked by the songs' infectious blends of styles. Hotel's second act, however, contains none of the first seven tunes' enthusiasm, and settles for half-heartedly rehashing inferior takes on what was so well-executed only moments earlier - the melodramatic "Love Should" aptly encapsulates all of the downhill side's weaknesses. As for the included 11-track instrumental bonus CD HOTEL.AMBIENT, well, it's aces for napping. 1/2
Petra Haden and Bill Frisell
PETRA HADEN and BILL FRISELL
From any other artist, the switch might've raised a few eyebrows: How could an artist (who's not Petra Haden) go from singing on an album with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to contributing vocals to punk granddaddy Mike Watt's The Secondman's Middle Stand? It's testimony to her versatility, if nothing else. Then there's the music, which here is a crossroads of styles, neither veering too much towards Frisell's transcendental jazz nor Haden's own folksy bent. But yes, if you were held down by the class bully and interrogated about Petra Haden and Bill Frisell, you'd more than likely file it under "singer/songwriter" before you would "jazz." Part of the reason is content - the leadoff track, "Satellite," was written by Elliot Smith, and a handful of other songs (the Foo Fighters' "Floaty," Coldplay's "Yellow") are covers of songs by commercially successful artists. But there's more to it than Frisell's indelible guitars and Haden's violin and vocals; indeed, covers of "Moon River" and "When You Wish Upon A Star" showcase talents that risk sounding hokey and succeed at every turn. The two are clearly having fun here; Frisell especially sounds sprightly on tracks that exemplify his knack for sounding understated yet unmistakable. www.songtone.com
STRAPPING YOUNG LAD
Sure, humor in thrash metal isn't exactly a new thing - see also Anthrax, M.O.D., Tampa Bay's own Gardy Loo!, and others. But subtle humor? Sly, self-aware humor that colors the music without tipping over into novelty? In serious metal's stern-faced, leather-crotched world, such a thing is pretty rare. Canadian composer/virtuoso/pool-pisser Devin Townsend has managed the trick quite nicely over the past five years, however, with his hyperbolic Strapping Young Lad project. Like every SYL album before it, Alien is an overload of extreme-metal elements, from ceaseless salvos of utterly precise double-bass drumming (courtesy of legendary death metal stickman Gene Hoglan) and shifting death-machine guitar riffs, to overwrought Gothic keyboard accompaniment and screeching vocals processed beyond understanding. While flawlessly executed, the music is so over-the-top as to constitute a winking jab at its own genre. Also like previous SYL records, Alien suffers in the act of making its point. The music is so relentless that it desensitizes the listener long before the disc is over - if you've gotta walk five miles in a driving rainstorm, you're not gonna notice the rain so much after slogging through the first two. Ironically, another of Alien's drawbacks concerns the few softer, more melodic tunes ("Two Weeks," "Love?") ostensibly included to break up the pummel: they suck. The album is still interesting and laudable in terms of its extremely deft balance of intensity and caricature of intensity, and the obvious talent in the instrumental performances. But the band's 2003 release SYL - and any of its absolutely crushing live performances - get it done with less tedium.
The Best of the Jam
Nearly three decades of rock history have anointed The Sex Pistols and The Clash, and to a lesser extent The Buzzcocks, the most influential bands of '70s British punk. The Jam falls into a slightly lower echelon, mostly because the London trio did not make a significant impact in the U.S. This Best of primer shows the Jam to be far more tuneful, musically adept, and - stylistically at least - much less punk (and more pop) than the aforementioned triumvirate. Singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Paul Weller had wide-ranging tastes - British mod-rock by the Who, Beatles and Kinks, as well as an array of American pop and R&B, with a special fondness for Motown - and from the get-go was an accomplished songwriter (compared to the Pistols' caterwauling blasts). This compendium skims the cream of the Jam catalogue, from the taut, riffy first singles "In the City" and "The Modern World" (1977) to the echo-and-string-drenched blue-eyed soul of "The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow)" and the bouncy Motown cop "Town Called Malice" (both from '82, the year the group disbanded). The collection has, quite literally, one major shortcoming: It includes just 11 songs and clocks in at a preposterously stingy 34-and-a-half minutes. Jam albums were known to have their share of filler, but there was clearly some more credible music available in the vaults to flesh this thing out.